Henry VI Part 1 abbreviated

Henry V, the play, ended with a touching scene.  Henry V had proposed to Katherine, the daughter of the French king, there in France, when the two of them could hardly communicate, her English no better than his French.  She had accepted his offer, conditioned on her father’s support, her father quickly agreeing to the union. The war with France was over. The French princess was beautiful.  Henry V was a hero.  Life was good.  But the next thing we know, we’re back in London, just as this play begins, and we learn that the king has died.  We don’t know how he died.  We had no reason to think he was ill.  We do know when the play begins that he and Katherine had had a son, named Henry, eight months old at the time of his father’s death.  The eight month old baby boy was the heir to the English throne. 

This play opens in August 1422 with the body of the late Henry V lying in state in Westminster Abbey. (Death, Act 1, Scene 1) What we soon learn is that by naming the late king’s eight-month old son king (and king of France, as far as the English are concerned) England has created for itself a political vacuum, his being so young.  The king in fifteenth century England was considered an instrument of God, with all that associated power.  With the king being who he was, each noble in the king’s court began going his own way, seeking for the most part his own self-interest, leaving no central authority.  The Epilogue from Henry V in part read “Small time, but in that small most greatly lived this star of England.  Fortune made his sword, by which the world’s best garden he achieved and of it left his son imperial lord.  Henry the Sixth, in infant bands crowned King of France and England, did this king succeed, whose state so many had the managing that they lost France and made his England bleed.” 

Many of the nobles in this play are descendants of John of Gaunt; John of Gaunt, as we’ve said before, being the fourth son of Edward III, the patriarch of this fifteen century extended family of kings.  The three king Henrys in this series are descendents of John of Gaunt and Blanche of Castile, considered the Legitimate line.  As you will see, many of the others in this play are descendents of John of Gaunt and his second wife, Catherine Swynford. They are considered the Beaufort line.  A challenge for readers of Henry VI, Part 1 might be that it is hard to keep track of all the people in the play.

England lost the leadership of a commanding and heroic monarch with the death of Henry V.  The death of Henry IV’s second son, the Duke of Clarence in 1421 didn’t help matters, Clarence being Thomas.  Back in 1413, Henry IV had counseled Thomas to “prove a hoop of gold to bind thy brothers that the united vessel of their blood shall never leak.”

A messenger enters and reports to the English nobles in London that John Talbot, their principal military leader in France, has been captured by the French during England’s loss of Orleans, leaving them alarmed.  But the English forces in France soon retake Orleans. (History, Act 1, Scene 1)  Talbot escapes his captors.  The French are shaken by their re-loss of Orleans.  Charles, the Dauphin in Henry V, now King Charles VII (as far as the French are concerned) says “Who ever saw the like?  What men have I! Dogs! Cowards! Dastards.” He had been crowned king of France in Reims, but the English don’t recognize him as such. 

The Bastard of Orleans then enters, saying to Charles “A holy maid hither with me I bring.”  Charles says, “Go, call her in.” (Braggadocio, Act 1, Scene 2.1) The Bastard of Orleans then introduces Joan la Pucelle (Joan of Arc) to Charles, Reignier and Alencon. Pucelle says to Charles “God’s mother did come to me, calling me to leave my base vocation, to free my country from dire calamity, promising me her aid and assuring success.”  Charles challenges her to a duel.  She embarrasses him. (Braggadocio, Act 1, Scene 2.2)  Charles appoints her as one to lead the French against the English.

Reignier, a close aide to Charles VII, cries out to Pucelle “Woman, do what thou canst to save our honors: drive them from Orleans and be immortalized.”  She takes charge.  The English forces are driven from Orleans, Talbot saying “A woman clad in armor chaseth them.” (Inspiration, Act 1, Scene 4) She leads the French forces and they temporarily retake Orleans. The earl of Salisbury, Westmorland’s only son and a key associate of Talbot, is fatally shot by cannon fire. (Death, Act 1, Scene 4) But led by Talbot, the English then retake Orleans, once again claiming it as theirs.  Talbot receives very able assistance from John, Duke of Lancaster, the young Henry VI’s uncle, and from the Duke of Burgundy, the Frenchman who had married into English royalty, marrying a Neville, now fighting on behalf of the English.  Burgundy is the French noble who had represented the French at the peace conference with Henry V following the French defeat at Agincourt. 

Meanwhile back in London, Humphrey, the youngest brother of the late Henry V, and the Bishop of Winchester, the second son of John of Gaunt and Catherine Swynford, have a heated exchange over control of the weapons and armor stored in London’s Tower.  Both men are close to the Henry VI, challenging the young king to take sides.  Shakespeare adds this as a clear illustration of the internal conflicts among the members of the king’s entourage.  Henry VI can’t control events as his father, Henry V, certainly would have. But to be fair, he’s just a boy. 

In a historically significant moment, Richard Plantagenet, the grandson of the original Duke of York, and the First Duke of Somerset (a strong-willed grandson of the original Duke of Lancaster in the Beaufort line) have a serious verbal spat in a secluded garden in London.  Plantagenet picks a white rose from a nearby bush and encourages those who support him to do likewise.  Warwick and Vernon do.  Somerset picks a red rose, as does Suffolk.  The fifteenth century’s long War of the Roses has begun. 

Richard Plantagenet then visits the long-imprisoned Edmund Mortimer, the very ill great-grandson of Lionel, Edward III’s third son. (Inspiration, Act 2, Scene 5) Mortimer and Plantagenet have a beautiful conversation, Mortimer giving us a valuable history lesson. (History, Act 2, Scene 5) Mortimer soon dies. Humphrey and the Bishop of Winchester have another intense argument; out in the street, the supporters of each man fighting among themselves.  The young king, being a mild, modest and religious man, having no ambition to be a king, is seriously dismayed, seeking not much more than peace among his family and aides.  The king names Richard Plantagenet the Duke of York, hoping that that title, a title that belongs in his family, will bring some peace among these feuding factions of the Plantagenets. But Exeter, John of Gaunt’s and Catherine Swynford’s third son, the uncle who was very close to Henry V, lets us know that he believes the appearance of family harmony is superficial.  (Insight, Act 3, Scene 1)

At Rouen, French troops, led by Pucelle, sneak into the city and confront the English, but the French are quickly frightened and scatter.  It is here where Henry V’s brother John dies.  John was a hero in the second history and a valuable ally to his brother in the third.  With control of Rouen, the English forces leave for Paris.  But the ever resourceful and determined Joan of Arc ably defends herself over the loss of Rouen and for the glory of France persuades Burgundy to end his support for Talbot and the English forces. (Persuasion, Act 3, Scene 3)

John Talbot is honored in Paris by Henry VI.  Winchester and Humphrey place the French crown on Henry VI’s head.  The nobles learn to their dismay that Burgundy has left them and joined the French forces. The Duke of York (Richard Plantagenet---with a white rose) and the First Duke of Somerset (with a red rose) continue their spat. (Threat, Act 4, Scene 1) The king remains unnerved, now appointing Richard Plantagenet the Regent of France, to replace his recently deceased uncle John.

Later at Bordeaux, Talbot and his troops are at the city’s walls, but soon find themselves surrounded by French forces. (Confidence, Act 4, Scene 2) Separately, York and Somerset pout and blame each other, each having been instructed to supply and support Talbot.  Through their inactions, they fail the English cause, the War of the Roses continuing.  Talbot knows he’s in trouble and says to his son “O young John Talbot!  Come, dally not, be gone.”  The son responds “Is my name Talbot?  And am I your son?”  Here Shakespeare offers perhaps his most inspiring conversation between a father and a son. Both Talbot and his son die at Bordeaux. (Father to Son, Act 4, Scene 6)

The known leaders of the world are encouraging Henry VI to come to peace with the French.  On balance, the French are on the losing end of most of these battles.  The king’s uncle Humphrey lets the young English king know that “The Earl of Armagnac, near knit to Charles, proffers his only daughter to your Grace in marriage, with a large and sumptuous dowry.”  France’s Reignier, a key aide to the French king, lets us know he has plans to offer his daughter, Margaret, as a prospective wife to the young Henry VI.  At this point, William de la Pole, the Earl of Suffolk, known as Suffolk, enters the story in an active way. Suffolk, having captured Reignier’s daughter Margaret, says “Be what thou wilt, thou art my prisoner.” Suffolk instantly falls for her, saying “O fairest beauty, I will touch thee but with reverent hands,” charming the young princess.  The dashing Suffolk figures that if he can convince the young king to marry her, he can through her influence both the king and England’s public policy. (Persuasion, Act 5, Scene 5) He has it figured out pretty well.

In Angiers, York captures Joan of Arc; the other French soldiers escaping.  He takes her to Anjou where they meet her father, where she disavows him, claiming she is of royal blood.  She’s taken away.  Soon the Dauphin Charles, Alencon and Reignier enter.  Charles accepts the peace terms offered by the English, believing he can later easily break the contract’s terms.  Suffolk presses Henry VI to commit to marry Margaret.  But Humphrey, the king’s remaining uncle from the Legitimate line, reminds the king that he had earlier agreed to marry the daughter of the Earl of Armagnac.  Suffolk is the more convincing. (Acceptance, Act 5, Scene 5) Henry VI marries Margaret.


Copyright © 2010 Abbreviated Shakespeare

Home